566 days. That is how long had passed since the last time OL Reign played a match at Cheney Stadium in the presence of their fans. That was so long ago that back then the club was known as Reign FC. It was a gap no one could have ever imagined, but finally, OL Reign welcomed fans back to Cheney Stadium as they began their 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup campaign against the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup champions, Houston Dash.
The result was a scoreless draw for their first competitive match in 2021 in which they looked rusty in the first half but were able to settle down in the second half and establish some of their system and show flashes of what they can do on the attacking from. For the some 1260 fans in attendance in Cheney Stadium, it hopefully was something optimistic now that they were able to see in person what Farid Benstiti’s system & vision for this team can be.
WHAT WORKED: Welcome back OL Reign!
First and foremost, how nice was it just to see the team back and Cheney Stadium with some folks in the stands?
WHAT WORKED: Angelina’s last-minute start
Allie Long was supposed to start, but got injured during pre-game warmups. Enter Brazilian international Angelina with the emergency start. She went 85 minutes in her surprise OL Reign/NWSL debut and overall did fine. There were moments in the first half where she and teammate Shirley Cruz had their wires crossed, but the hiccups did not result in disasters for Houston to exploit and claim a goal.
WHAT WORKED: Leah Pruitt’s pressure
After the team made it through the rocky first 45 without giving up a goal, they looked a lot more comfortable and were able to build more with their runs. Forward Leah Pruitt made her presence felt in the second half during a notable set of minutes early on where she put pressure on Houston’s defense, successfully winning the ball back within their 18-yard box and getting a shot on target.
WHAT WORKED: A backline that bent but didn’t break
It was a surprise to everyone that captain Lauren Barnes was not in the starting eleven. The reasoning could be more about the short turnaround for their next Challenge Cup match where leadership and organization will be paramount. Also with a 28-player roster and at least four matches to play, you have to give minutes to as many players you can. Second year player Madison Hammond has been viewed very highly by the club and as good a test for any young defender is being tested against a team like Houston Dash that can be explosive in transition and on counterattacks. Paired with Amber Brooks in the middle and Celia Jimenez Delgado and Kristen McNabb on the flanks, the defense sure was tested along with goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, but the unit was able to contain most of Houston’s attack throughout the night.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Rust
This was OL Reign’s first competitive match in 2021 and it was reasonable to expect some rust. The first half showed that rust at times, in contrast to their opponents, who already had a game under their belt. What we said about Angelina’s first half with the emergency start could easily be attributed to that rust as well. OL Reign also struggled to connect that second or third pass in the first half, which surely Houston’s pressing did not make it any easier for them. And while they had settled in and looked more comfortable in the second half, the shots they did get on goal did not beat Houston goalkeeper Lindsey Harris.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Allie Long’s injury
The first notable thing to happen in OL Reign’s first Challenge Cup match occurred before they even kicked off. Long’s injury during warmups wasn’t good and head coach Farid Benstiti said post match that further evaluation will be needed over the weekend. As much as it is standard procedure to assess any injury, having it happen to one of the key cogs in the midfield is never a good thing. OL Reign fans will just have to hold their breath for an update and hope it isn’t too severe.
“We were all smiles walking out.”
Those were forward Bethany Balcer’s first words when asked about playing in front of around 1,260 fans at Cheney Stadium. Washington state’s COVID-19 restrictions allowed for up to 25% capacity and it was not lost on the team being able to play in front of those fans for the first time since their 2019 regular season finale, some 566 days ago.
The draw gives OL Reign a point in the west division of the Challenge Cup standings. With the format of the competition this year being the top teams in each west and east division meeting in the NWSL Challenge Cup Championship, OL Reign will need to claim wins in their remaining matches if they want to play in the Challenge Cup Championship on May 8. Turnaround from tonight’s match will be a quick one as OL Reign head down I-5 to familiar enemy territory for a mid-week match. Up next is another meeting with their Cascadia rival, Portland Thorns FC. Kickoff for that sold-out match is scheduled for Wednesday, April 21 at 7 PM.